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California Ag Leadership Program logo Todd Fitchette
The California Agriculture Leadership Program is in its 50th year.

New crop of ag leaders up to the challenge

Commentary: California Agriculture Leadership Program inspires optimism

For all the negativity surrounding my chosen profession, ag communications is one facet of journalism that I'm tremendously fortunate to have stumbled upon over 20 years ago. In preparing to write the story you'll read here on the California Agriculture Leadership Program, I spoke with several people who make me optimistic about an industry peppered with pessimism.

There's no denying the laundry list of challenges facing American agriculture and farmers today, and growers in the West may well be at the epicenter. With such an onslaught of regulatory constraints sown in California, it's not difficult to be bearish. Yet for all there is to be concerned about, a new sense of optimism was borne from chatting with graduates of the California Agriculture Leadership Program.

The leadership program is not one of those programs you join to learn about agriculture, though I'm sure there are discussions among participants that are helpful to this end. Rather, it's a program aimed at shaping the next generations of leaders tasked with sustaining a vital American industry. One of the take-home messages I gleaned from my interviews was the willingness of those involved to be a part of the solution. Each person I spoke with talked of the importance of personal growth and networking.

I like what Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever-Blattler told me. As an agricultural advocate she can be in the minority in diverse and complex policy discussions. If the leadership program taught her anything, it's that building better leaders for agriculture is crucial.

I also learned that while it may be popular to bash the millennial generation, millennial's like Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual left me optimistic that all is not lost, and that answers to some of our biggest challenges may come through a generation now entering their stride. It was in these interviews I found myself somewhat envious of the opportunities presented to program fellows.

The genesis of my story came from a keynote address California Ag Leadership Foundation President Barry Bedwell gave last summer. In it he outlined the history of the association and talked up how women, who did not participate in the first several classes of the fledgling program, now make up half of the class.

This reminds me of a conversation I had almost a year ago with Holly King, chair of the Almond Board of California. King, a graduate of Class 24, recounted her start in ag lending when only men worked in that industry. For this story, King said she applauds the program "for being open to diversity of all types."

Beyond the leadership traits fellows learn and can bring to their ag associations, Bedwell said folks are encouraged to expand their leadership into their local communities. Each in his or her own way left me encouraged, challenged and optimistic after the interviews, and for that I'm grateful.

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